Music in a Free State - Orchestras in music history

In an excerpt from the MIC publication "Music in a Free State" writer Erling Sandmo portrays the central Norwegian orchestral institutions involved in the concert series.

Stavanger Symfoniorkester

Orchestras in music history

Five orchestras are involved in performing the Norwegian orchestral works presented here: the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, the Norwegian Radio Orchestra, the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra and the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra. Brief historical outlines of the five orchestras are presented below. This presentation is appropriate, not only because they will be playing the works featured here, but also because they are an important part of Norway’s music history. Norwegian orchestral music cannot be considered in isolation from Norwegian orchestras.
The story of how musical works are created does not end until they have been performed for the first time. And the list of premières of the works described in this book clearly reflects how important Norwegian orchestras were for the music. The Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra was the first to play the works by Arvid Kleven, Pauline Hall, Ludvig Irgens-Jensen, Fartein Valen, Finn Mortensen, Ragnar Söderlind and Rolf Wallin, while the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra premièred the works by Harald Sæverud, Geirr Tveitt and Antonio Bibalo, plus Olav Anton Thommessen’s Makrofantasi, which is now part of Et glassperlespill.
At the same time, it is important to remember that other orchestras are part of this music history and that the selection presented here must, of necessity, represent a slight historical distortion. There are fairly new professional symphony orchestras in Kristiansand and Tromsø. The National Opera has its own orchestra. The Youth Symphony Orchestra in Elverum was the first to perform Ketil Hvoslef’s Antigone. Moreover, several orchestras, primarily theatre orchestras, have disappeared. In this respect, it is worth noting that it was the National Theatre Orchestra that Johan Halvorsen conducted when his Coronation Cantata was performed in Nidaros Cathedral in 1906. This orchestra was also the first to play Hjalmar Borgstrøm’s Thought, again with Halvorsen conducting, and probably Gerhard Schjelderup’s Brand, conducted by the composer himself.
Although the orchestras contributed when all these orchestral works were performed for the first time, they can scarcely be said to have kept them in their repertoires. From this point of view, Norwegian orchestral music has a rich history but a poor tradition. Performances of new Norwegian orchestral music have thus been isolated events. In the late 1990s, a comprehensive survey was carried out of the repertoires of the symphony orchestras in the Nordic region. It showed that the proportion of contemporary national music declined significantly in the period from 1920 to 1995. Perhaps the concert series that is the subject of this book can mark a turning point in this trend. However, it is also important to remember that, as mentioned in the introduction, “orchestral music” is rather different today than it was a hundred years ago. For many important composers, it is now the slightly smaller orchestra, the chamber orchestra or sinfonietta, that has the greatest appeal, and we have several of those, such as the Oslo Sinfonietta, the Cikada Ensemble and BIT 20. The Norwegian Chamber Orchestra has also played Norwegian music. However none of smaller ensembles are included in this selection. The inquiring listener has many paths to follow from here.

The Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra

Today, the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra is one of Norway’s two full-size national symphony orchestras. With roots going back to 1765, it is one of the oldest orchestral institutions in the world. That is when Det musicalske Selskab (The Musical Society) was established. Societies of this type were an important new element in European urban culture in the 18th century. They organised concerts for members and visitors featuring their own orchestras, and they rapidly became an important part of musical life. That was also the case in Bergen, where the Musical Society, which was subsequently called Musikselskabet Harmonien became an important framework for bourgeois culture and external influences. For example, Beethoven’s second symphony was played in Bergen in the year it was published – even before it was performed in Berlin.
Edvard Grieg had close ties to the orchestra and was its artistic director for a few years in the early 1880s. He also bequeathed his estate to a fund that has since been an important part of the orchestra’s financial base. What is today called the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra has thus been an important element in both the Europeanisation of Norwegian musical life and the emergence of a specifically Norwegian orchestral tradition.
The period during and immediately after World War I was decisive for Norway’s orchestral culture. In Bergen and Christiania there was considerable interest in having larger orchestras and, as a result of cooperation between music societies, private shareholders and local authorities, both cities provided substantial financial resources. In Bergen, the orchestra was reorganised and in 1919 it had 40 professional, full-time musicians.
The lives of the musicians were nevertheless more diversified than they are today. Their contracts stated that they were to play for theatre and cinema performances on the days they were not playing in symphony concerts. Moreover, the symphony concerts took place in the largest cinema in Bergen town centre, Konsertpaleet, and everything had to be cleared away before the lights went down for the evening’s film show at 9 p.m. The orchestra did not move into the Grieg Hall until 1978.
From an artistic point of view, there was nevertheless surprising continuity in the activities of the orchestra. Harald Heide was artistic director from 1908 to 1948. The many guest conductors included Harald Sæverud, who was often invited to conduct performances of his own works, despite his reputation for being modern and difficult. The tradition of playing contemporary Norwegian music was maintained under Karsten Andersen, who was artistic director from 1964 until 1985. In 2003, this post was taken over by the American conductor Andrew Litton.
Another constant factor in the history of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra is its link to the Bergen International Music Festival, where it has played a fundamental role since the beginning in 1953. Here too there has often been focus on new Norwegian music, while a performance of Grieg’s A minor concerto has always marked the opening of the festival. The orchestra is thus constantly in the historical interface between Norwegian and international music, and between Norway’s present and its historical past.

The Norwegian Radio Orchestra

Throughout most of the century covered by this book, the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) has been a vitally important contributor to Norwegian orchestral and music history. When the first regular regional radio broadcasts began in 1925 they consisted of music, and the NRK has continued to be the country’s national radio company.
Music broadcasts were an element of cultural policy from the beginning. The musical profile was to be national and of high quality. To build a profile of this nature, the NRK had to participate actively in developing regional orchestras. The Oslo Philharmonic was split between two different radio orchestras in 1928, and when it was reorganised in 1931 the NRK provided financial support. A separate radio orchestra was established in Bergen, while in 1938 a radio ensemble was established in Stavanger that was subsequently to become the core of the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra. However, many people believed that the NRK should also have its own symphony orchestra, as was customary among other European broadcasting corporations. Others took the view that the NRK should assume responsibility for supporting and encouraging the existing orchestras, especially the Oslo Philharmonic.
The debate was heated and intense. The NRK provided substantial funding for the Norwegian symphony orchestras for sixty years, from 1933 to 1993. Until 1969, the NRK was the orchestras’ biggest contributor, and in certain periods its support was crucial to their survival. This imposed a great strain on the NRK, and the arrangement was not ideal from the orchestras’ point of view either. Funding was accompanied by comprehensive demands for services in return. However, a separate NRK orchestra posed a real threat to the existing orchestras.
When the Norwegian Radio Orchestra was established in 1946, it was not a symphony orchestra. Instead, the NRK enlisted the services of musicians from the Hotel Bristol in Oslo. The “Bristol Orchestra” became the Norwegian Radio Orchestra and was conducted by Øyvind Bergh. In the initial years, the musicians worked in two different formats: as a ballroom and light orchestra and as a more classically oriented salon orchestra. From 1951 onwards it worked as a single entity. And the NRK continued to provide financial support for the orchestras.
Over the years, the Norwegian Radio Orchestra grew larger and more flexible. It continued to play light music, but as new, younger musicians entered the scene, it expanded its capacity to play the more traditional symphonic repertoire. This trend accelerated in Sverre Bruland’s period as conductor, from 1976 to 1988. At the same time, however, the purpose of having a special broadcasting orchestra became increasingly unclear. On the one hand it was a large, expensive light orchestra and on the other a small, overworked symphony orchestra that had little opportunity to realise its artistic potential.
In the 1990s it seemed likely that the Norwegian Radio Orchestra would be disbanded. That did not happen. Its vulnerable position increased the focus on the orchestra and appears to have spurred it to strive for even higher standards. Under chief conductor Rolf Gupta, it is a better symphony orchestra than ever, and as a player in contemporary Norwegian musical life it is more active and important than ever before.

The Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra

The Oslo Philharmonic is not only the largest and most prominent orchestra in Norway. In recent decades it has become a respected name on the international scene. However, it does not have the same long, continuous history as the other national orchestra, the Bergen Philharmonic. There were certainly music societies, professional orchestral musicians and many amateur orchestras in Christiania in the 19th century, but the Filharmonisk Selkaps Orkester (Philharmonic Society Orchestra) was not established until 1919. It replaced the Music Society Orchestra and the National Theatre Orchestra, which had both given numerous public concerts for large audiences.
The Philharmonic Society was established during the economic boom just after World War I, originally as a private organisation that would appoint and pay the orchestra’s musicians. In the same way as in Bergen, however, the orchestra rapidly became the subject of both private and official interest. The city council provided money and assumed administrative responsibility, and when the orchestra held its first concert in autumn 1919 it took place in the city council hall – the great hall of the Masonic Lodge – and featured a purely Norwegian programme.
In a fairly short time, the Oslo Philharmonic became a national orchestra to a unique degree, not least due to radio broadcasts of its concerts. Partly as a result of its special position, the debate on the orchestra’s national-artistic profile was extremely intense. It peaked at the beginning of the 1930s when the orchestra was comprehensively reorganised. When a new chief conductor was to be appointed, Olav Kielland was preferred to Odd Grüner-Hegge. It was subsequently believed that the choice of Kielland was due to his clear national orientation: by comparison, Grüner-Hegge was a more obvious exponent of a more general European radicalism in music. Similar debates about the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra have recurred frequently in various forms. More recently, however, there has been no conflict between Norwegianness and modernity: on the contrary, there have been demands from various quarters for the orchestra to play more modern Norwegian music. The debates that have taken place about the choice of programme thus reflect the fact that the orchestra is perceived as a vital arena for Norwegian cultural life. They also illustrate that the issue of what is to be regarded as contemporary Norwegian culture is also a musical issue.
There is no doubt that the Oslo Philharmonic has become increasingly internationally oriented. Grüner-Hegge returned as chief conductor after World War II, and after him the orchestra was led by both Norwegian and foreign conductors. Unique among them is Mariss Jansons, who was chief conductor and artistic director in Oslo from 1979 until 2002. During this period, the orchestra became one of the most prominent in Europe, primarily distinguished by its brilliant performances of the great late-Romantic symphonic repertoire. One clear indication of its success is that Jansons was succeeded by André Previn, one of the great international conductors of the post-war era.

The Stavanger Symphony Orchestra

Like most Norwegian orchestras, the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra has complex origins. The town had a professional theatre orchestra in the early 1900s. There was also an orchestral society, which commissioned the musicians from the theatre orchestra to play in the town’s orchestra, supplemented by a group of talented amateurs. In the 1920s, however, musical life was affected by the economic slump. The theatre went bankrupt and the orchestra was disbanded. Then, in 1931, a new professional orchestra was established, the Stavanger musikerforenings orkester (The Stavanger Musicians’ Society Orchestra). It changed its name to the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra the following year. A core group of musicians from the symphony orchestra also played in a radio orchestra, the Stavanger Radio Ensemble, subsequently known as the Stavanger Ensemble.
In Christiania and Bergen, symphony orchestras were established on the basis of close financial and administrative cooperation between the town council and various private players. This proved to be more difficult in Stavanger. When the local council became involved in orchestral activities in the 1930s, a new orchestra was established. It was called the Stavanger City Orchestra and conducted by the very popular Gunnar Knudsen, leader of the radio ensemble. After a period of dissention, the City Orchestra became Stavanger’s only professional symphony orchestra, under the name of the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra.
The orchestra was small for many years. Although Karsten Andersen built it up during his long period as artistic director from 1945 to 1963, even in 1979 it comprised only 29 professional musicians. One of the special characteristics of the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra is its impressive ability to turn its limited resources to advantage. In recent years, the orchestra has focused particularly on the part of the repertoire that is least dependent on a full symphony orchestra, i.e. the oldest and newest music, employing different permanent, specialist conductors in each field. For early and pre-Romantic music, the orchestra has worked with major names in the performance of historical works; Frans Brüggen and then Philippe Herreweghe. The other artistic directors are now Ole Kristian Ruud, who is particularly responsible for the Norwegian repertoire, and Susanna Mälkki, who is responsible for international music from the Romantic period onwards. In order to develop as a contemporary ensemble, the orchestra has also forged permanent ties with the French Ensemble Intercontemporain, founded by Pierre Boulez.
The Stavanger Symphony Orchestra has also worked systematically on Norwegian orchestral music from the beginning of the 20th century to the present day. The performance of Fartein Valen’s violin concerto in 1952, with Camilla Wicks as soloist and Valen himself in the audience, stands as one of the great events in the orchestra’s history. Since 1993 it has arranged the Nordic Composers’ Workshop and in 2000 it established cooperation with its own house composer, Kaare Dyvik Husby. The Stavanger Symphony Orchestra has also made a name for itself on the international arena with a long list of recordings of orchestral music by Geirr Tveitt and Harald Sæverud.

The Trondheim Symphony Orchestra

A symphony orchestra was established for the first time in Trondheim in 1908. While a core group of musicians came from the theatre orchestra, the orchestra belonged to the Music Society. Like the other Norwegian orchestras, the Trondheim orchestra experienced serious difficulties in the 1920s and was ultimately disbanded in 1922. However, a new orchestra was established in 1929 with local government support – as part of the planning for the St. Olav anniversary the following year.
Many years were to pass before the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra became a professional, full-time orchestra. As in Stavanger, it had a core group of musicians who also played in a smaller ensemble, the Trondheim Chamber Orchestra, which was established in 1947. This group was supplemented with part-time musicians and competent amateurs as and when required. Today the orchestra employs 75 musicians and is headed by Eivind Aadland.
Like the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra, the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra – perhaps paradoxically – has had a far clearer Norwegian musical profile than the national orchestras in Oslo and Bergen. This is partly a matter of resources: the smaller orchestras have had Norwegian conductors for a longer period of time, while the larger orchestras have brought in conductors, and thereby also repertoires, from outside. However, from the point of view of Norwegian music the orchestras in Stavanger and Trondheim also have another very important factor in common: conductor Ole Kristian Ruud, who is currently one of the three artistic directors in Stavanger. In Trondheim he was chief conductor and artistic director from 1987 to 1994 and he is still a permanent guest conductor. Ole Kristian Ruud has made a unique contribution to Norwegian music, and in Trondheim there has been special focus on the somewhat older repertoire. In this respect it is characteristic that the impressive recording of Hjalmar Borgstrøm’s major opera, Thora paa Rimol, was made in Trondheim with the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra in the orchestra pit, on that occasion conducted by Terje Boye Hansen.
The orchestras in Stavanger and Trondheim are interesting examples of how regional orchestras act as bearers of the nation’s musical heritage, while maintaining close dialogue with the age in which they live. In Stavanger they have worked systematically with the music of Tveitt and Sæverud, among others; in Trondheim they have recorded more recent classics by composers such as Ludvig Irgens-Jensen and Klaus Egge. And while the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra has organised composers’ workshops and appointed a house composer, the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra has meant a great deal for regional composers and made a strong contribution towards giving them a national platform. The most prominent composer in this circle is perhaps Ståle Kleiberg. The orchestra’s cooperation with Kleiberg has partly taken place in the Nidaros Cathedral, thus harking back to Trondheim’s more ancient music history and to eras long before the orchestra’s own.

Erling Sandmo

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